Hands-on: Volkswagen Golf GTi (Mk7) review

The VW Golf GTi has been an ever present in the automotive world since 1975. Six generations of the car have sold over 200,000 units for VW in the UK alone. A smash hit? Yes, but rather like Top of the Pops, the game's moved on since the GTi first arrived in town, and last year VW only sold 1,770 Mk6 GTi models. The seventh generation GTi has just gone on sale and is charged with reversing the slide.

While the world might be moving on, the GTi moves in evolutionary ways. The Mk7 car is slightly bigger, slightly lighter, slightly more powerful and slightly more expensive than the car it replaces.

Hasn't it been ever thus? Well, not quite. The big news in that last sentence is the "lighter" bit - VW group's new MQB platform - the company's strategy for shared modular construction of its cars - is a marvel of engineering which means Golf Mk7 weighs up to 100kg less than Golf Mk6, but is also safer in a crash.

Not only that, but while VW has always been happy to let other manufacturers lead the horsepower race and the standard Golf now has 220bhp, or for just £980 you can add a Performance Pack to net  an extra 10bhp, alongside bigger brakes and a limited-slip differential.

What definitely hasn't changed is the image. The Mk7 GTi is definitely a sharper looker than the slightly rounded Mk5 and Mk6 cars. Particularly in the three door form our test car, there's a real chiselled visual quality, with that trademark thick C-pillar being emphasised by the kink of the rear window line. We like the red stripe that runs off the grille and through the lamps too.

Furthermore, we're also glad to see VW hasn't totally binned the wonderful "Monza shadow" alloy design that proved so popular on the last two versions, evolving them into the slightly squared-off Austin versions you see in this latest model. Either way, it's subtle rather than shouty. The GTi doesn't call for a "cap on backwards" dress code that some other hot hatches we could name seem to do. And we like that.

Jump in and the familiar - and good - story continues. If you're hankering after a GTi, whatever you do don't waste your money on the optional leather trim. The tartan/checker is a GTi trademark, and looks as timeless here as it ever has done. What's more, it covers seats that - outside of a Volvo - are some of the most comfortable places in the car world in which you can spend serious amounts of time. As with the previous car, the seat ratchets down to a proper, sports-car low position. The steering wheel is massively adjustable, and in front of you is the tasteful - although some might argue slightly drab - Golf dashboard.

What you can't argue with is the quality - with plastics quality that shames premium brands and those little touches like completely flock-lined door bins to stop your keys and phone rattling around when you're on a mission - that VW just gets right. You also get the larger version of VW's touchscreen satnav system, which we praised in our review of the regular Golf. It's the same system, so despite limited time with the new GTi, we don't see any reason why we're likely to change our view about it.

READ: Volkswagen Golf GT 1.4 TSi review

Get on the move though, and you will notice some changes. Our car had the optional Performance Pack (PP) fitted and it's the first box you should tick. Why? Well, having driven a Mk6 GTi just a few weeks back, you instantly notice the power jump. The Mk7 PP just pulls like a train, at points in the rev range where the Mk6 could feel like it was running out of puff. Now 230bhp might be a small beer in the hot hatch world of 335bhp Mercs and even 265bhp Meganes. But the Golf never feels anything other than decidedly quick. Do you need more power on the road, truthfully? Not unless you intend on getting yourself into trouble.

But it's not just the power that the Performance Pack gives you, it's a limited-slip front differential. Which, without going deep into technicalities, means that in tight corners, or on wet roads, when one wheel begins to "unload" and lose traction, the system directs power to the wheel with most grip and thus stops the other wheel spinning away power. The affect this has is to slingshot you around corners. When you think the car is about to understeer, it bites into the road and just goes.

We had a scant 45 minutes with the new GTi, but the positive impression it made was huge. We'll need longer time with one to fully uncover its talents and foibles for a full review, but despite a performance deficit compared to some rivals, the Golf's very appealing and huge fun to drive.

Prices start at £25,845. But once you've gone the sensible option of the 5-door model, added that performance pack and a couple of other choice options, you're knocking on the door of £30K. Which puts the Golf right in the crosshairs of our current favourite hot hatch, the BMW M135i.

READ: BMW M135i review

They're very different cars though, each talented in their own separate ways. We can't wait to spend some more time with the new GTi to make a judgement call on where our money would ultimately be spent. Either way, if you've got £25-30K to spend on a fast hatch right now, as we've said before, you are utterly spoilt for choice. Right now we are in a golden age of the breed, and the car the started the ball rolling, the Golf GTi, is - based on this first impression - looking better than ever.